The German Democratic Republic hi136: History of Germany



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The German Democratic Republic

  • HI136: History of Germany


Totalitarianist interpretations

  • Popular in 1950s West German interpretations; revival post-1989

    • Comparisons drawn with brown dictatorship of NS
  • Stress illegitimacy of Soviet occupation & East German ‘puppets’

    • State ideology of ‘socialist personality’ within collective
    • ‘Leading role’ of ruling party enshrined in constitution
    • Stasi secret police
    • State control of economy
    • Control of media
    • Control of economy
  • Berlin Wall as epitome of state control of individual

    • Breached UN human rights on freedom of travel
  • Klaus Schroeder, Der SED-Staat (1998)

  • Eckard Jesse (ed.), Totalitarismus im 20. Jahrhundert (1998)

  • Anthony Glees, The Stasi Files (2003)

  • Also popular with many former GDR citizens; but is this because it denies personal responsibility?



Modernising dictatorship?

  • Complex industrial economy required ‘rational’ not ‘ideological’ elite

    • More university graduates enter party apparatus from 1960s
    • Peter C. Ludz, The Changing Party Elite in East Germany (1968/72)
  • Economic reforms of 1960s (New Economic System)

    • Attempt at decentralisation and incentivisation of economy
  • Technological revolution

    • Special role of intelligentsia in GDR (see dividers on state emblem)
    • Precision engineering from Dresden & Leipzig
    • 1980s gamble on microchip technology (too high investment costs)
  • Welfare dictatorship (Konrad Jarausch)

    • Indirect use of ‘social power’ to predispose groups to choose socialism
    • Full employment, hospitals, education system > fond memories
  • Educational dictatorship (Erziehungsdiktatur)?

    • Party ‘in loco parentis’, knowing what was good for the people
    • Rolf Henrich, The Guardian State (1989); party man turned dissident


Collective biographies & everyday histories

  • GDR lasted more than one generation; post-1949 generation ‘born into’ socialism

  • Are we patronising GDR citizens by treating them all as ‘released prisoners’ & victims?

  • Gaus, Locating Germany (1983): ‘niche society’, relatively normal private life possible behind public conformity

  • Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State (2005)

  • Material culture: 1990s growing interest in popular culture of GDR

  • Ostalgie/’Eastalgia’: re-issuing of GDR brands (see the Spreewald gherkin episode in Goodbye Lenin); fight to preserve minor symbols of difference (traffic light man)

  • Danger of ‘commodifying’ the GDR past & relativising idealistic motivations



The Achievements of Socialism



Walter Ulbricht, SED leader 1946-71

  • Reliable but uncharismatic functionary

  • Weimar KPD leader in Berlin in 1930s

  • Nazi exile spent mainly in Moscow, avoiding purges of later 30s; viewed as Stalinist even after Stalin’s death

  • Favoured ‘hard line’ of constructing socialism in half a country rather than pursuing reunification; in 1953 under heavy fire from Politburo colleagues, but ‘saved’ by 17 June uprising

  • Activist role in pushing Khrushchev into aggressive stance over Berlin Crisis; WU devoted most of later time to foreign pol.

  • 1960s attempted to play the moderniser, with focus on technology

  • 1971 ousted by ‘palace coup’ by Honecker, with Soviet backing of Brezhnev; died in 1973



Erich Honecker, SED leader, 1971-89

  • Spent most of Third Reich in prison

  • 1946 leader of Free German Youth

  • From late 1950s responsible for internal affairs in GDR

  • 1971 acquired Moscow’s backing to remove Ulbricht

  • EH formed an unwritten ‘social pact’ (the Unity of Economic and Social policy) which subsidised popular standard of living (at height in mid-70s); increasingly paid for by loans from West, turning GDR into loan junkie by 1980s

  • Gorbachev’s arrival as a Soviet reform communist leader in 1985 caused SED a succession crisis as ‘gerontocracy’ hung on to power; EH was hospitalised at crucial points of the 1989 crisis

  • Famous in GDR for panama hat & natty pale suits; died 1994 in exile in Chile



Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED)

  • June 1945 Soviets relegalise political parties

  • Autumn Communists decide on merger with Social Democrats; local resistance from some SPD, but pressure from SMAD

  • United workers’ party of SED founded April 1946 (debates: was this the spontaneous will of workers, learning lessons of divided labour movement in 1933, or creature of Soviets?)

  • 1948-51: SED Stalinised into ‘New-Type Party’; purge of former Social Democrats & loss of parity principle

  • 1946 free elections: SED polls 48%

  • SED functions as hub of Antifascist Bloc including Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats, and later National Democrats and Farmers; elections also fought as single Bloc list (aka National Front)

  • SED membership: rose from 1.3 (1946) to 2.3 million (1986), including many careerist members; women’s shared only reached 35.5%; functionaries (i.e. officials) liked to list themselves as ‘workers’ but had they functionally become middle-class?

  • ‘Politbureaucracy’ lived sheltered existence in Wandlitz compound, including all mod cons

  • ‘Foot soldiers’ often true believers, working hard & living frugally (see Landolf Scherzer, Der Erste/Number One, 1988, shadowing hardworked local party secretary)



The Stasi (MfS): Shield and Sword of the Party

  • Founded as clone of KGB under Soviet occupation

  • Early on used mainly for counter-intelligence (to keep out or kidnap western spies)

  • Markus Wolf’s Foreign Section scored notable successes in planting moles with West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970s

  • 1952 Stasi given control of border; later policed the border troops

  • Poor early warning for 1953 uprising & temporarily demoted from ministerial status

  • Central Evaluation & Information Group (ZAIG) monitored popular mood

  • Self-image as pro-active ‘social workers’ or agents of the ‘invisible frontier’; ‘operative missions’ included infiltration & decomposition from within of suspected dissident groups

  • 1960s MfS adopts more sophisticated techniques & ‘total surveillance’

  • Informelle Mitarbeiter (IMs) (‘informal collaborators’ or informants: growing reliance for ‘total surveillance’ on coopted members of public

  • ‘Destasification’: prominent cases show difficulty of proving if suspect was indirectly reported or IM (Manfred Stolpe, minister-president of Brandenburg)

  • Timothy Garton Ash, The File (1997)

  • Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality (2003)



17 June 1953: A People’s Uprising?

  • March 1953: Stalin dies; power vacuum?

  • May: new Moscow leadership order more liberal ‘New Course’; Ulbricht criticised

  • But workers excluded from some reforms (ration cards, work quotas increased)

  • 16 June: building workers on Berlin’s Stalinallee strike for economistic reasons

  • 17 June am: spontaneous strikes in cities; Berlin strikers march on ministerial district

  • 17 June pm: more political demands (free elections, national unity); late afternoon Soviet tanks impose martial law

  • East German explanation: CIA-organised putsch (‘Tag X’) using teenager thugs

  • West German explanation: people’s revolt against Soviet tyranny





The Open Border



The Berlin Wall, 13 August 1961

  • Failure of 1958 economic drive to overtake West German consumer production

  • 1960 economic problems & growing E. European subsidies

  • 1961 Warsaw Pact states agree to seal off W. Berlin; initially fences were erected (see right) to test the West’s response; since the barrier was within E. Berlin territorial limits it was treated as internal affair

  • 1964 old age pensioners allowed to visit West

  • 1971 Berlin Agreement permits ‘grade-1 relatives’ to visit West; in the 1980s West German loans were tied to the human rights liberalisation

  • Shoot to kill: all told approx. 1,000 persons died at the inner-German border; it was also mined until 1984; after fall of the Wall border guards who shot received suspended sentences fro manslaughter; those higher up in the Army or Politburo received prison sentences



Antifascism: a legitimatory ideology

  • Marxist-Leninist doctrine always interpreted fascism as an outgrowth of capitalism; therefore antifascism linked to anti-capitalism (big business as Hitler’s stringpullers)

  • Fascism also interpreted as a political class war (mainly v. KPD), rather than racial war (v. Jews); GDR paid no reparations to Israel & antisemitic attacks on graveyards persisted

  • West German Federal Republic viewed as haven of former Nazis, protected by Anglo-Americans (especially in 1950s/60s); antifascism thus had contemporaneous function of anti-westernism (e.g. Berlin Wall officially labelled ‘Antifascist Defence Rampart’)

  • SED leadership (mainly Soviet exiles) had ambivalent attitude to ‘real’ antifascist veterans (marginalised ‘inland’ resisters, dissolved veterans’ organisations)

  • Antifascism an affective moral argument for wartime generation; but younger generations increasingly indifferent to abstract antifascism; with unification to FRG’s public culture of atonement many East Germans had difficulties accepting ‘collective guilt’



Socialist nationalism?

  • Early Stalinist/SED policy stressed national unity (Stalin 1945: ‘The Hitlers come and go; the German people remains’; Stalin Notes of March 1952 offering a neutral united Germany cf Austria)

  • GDR inferiority complex towards FRG (FRG’s ‘sole representation’ of German nation & refusal to recognise GDR in Hallstein Doctrine); all East German citizens reaching FRG automatically entitled to West German passport

  • ‘Peaceful coexistence’: 1955 Khrushchev signals two German states in one nation; from 1980s policy of ‘demarcation’ (Abgrenzung) from FRG

  • Socialist humanism stressed heritage of classical greats (Goethe & Schiller at National Theatre at Weimar)

  • 1980s GDR rediscovery of tradition (national poets Goethe & Schiller of Weimar; Luther anniversary; Bismarck biography; Frederick the Great statues in Berlin & Potsdam)

  • 1987: East Berlin celebrates its 750th anniversary, including historical reconstruction of Nikolai quarter & its church, as well as 19th-century Sophienstrasse



‘The Friends’: Relations with the Soviets

  • Official propaganda stressed the liberation in 1945, GDR ‘brothers in arms’ within Warsaw Pact; slogan: ‘Learning from the Soviet Union means Learning to Win!’

  • Day-to-day relations tarnished by mass rapes of women lasting for years after 1945

  • Dismantling of factories: ca. 30% of East German plant was removed

  • Russian was compulsory in schools but not pursued by many to a high level

  • Membership of the Society for German-Soviet Friendship was automatic in the mass organisations

  • Gorbachev: belonged to new generation of reform communists

  • Renounced Brezhnev for ‘Sinatra’ Doctrine

  • ‘If your neighbours re-wallpapered their flat would you feel obliged to redecorate yours?’ Kurt Hager



Economic decline

  • Honecker’s subsidies at cost of western loans; increasing pressure to liberalise in return for loans

  • Microchip gamble: East Germany invested billions in flawed silicon experiment

  • Switch from Soviet oil to East German brown coal (environmental problems)

  • 9 November 1989: SED Politburo collectively resigns over exposed debt crisis

  • Crisis deepened into spring 1990 with emigration to West of key workers, including doctors

  • Key voting issue in March 1990 fast union with D-mark zone in West (occurred 1 July 1990)

  • Since reunification GDR suffered approx. twice unemployment rate of other FRG

  • Treuhand (Trustee) agency set to privatise East German industry; beset by corruption (even Chancellor Kohl indicted)

  • Validation of Adenauer’s 1950s ‘magnet theory’ that West Germany would draw GDR into its orbit?



Civil society

  • SED state claimed monopoly of representation; even strikes illegal

  • Artists & writers as substitute ‘Öffentlichkeit’ (public sphere)?

  • Wolf Biermann case: singer-songwriter & left critic of SED (which he saw as travesty of socialism); 1976 effectively deported from GDR

  • Earliest civil disobedience over freedom of travel (1973 GDR joined UN – human rights issues); beginnings of illegal contacts & groupings; white as dissident colour

  • Churches as sanctuaries for alternative groups

  • Environmental issues: pollution

  • Political issues: vote-rigging exposed in May 1989 local elections

  • Sept. 1989: several citizens’ groups emerge, including New Forum, Democratic Awakening & Initiative Peace and Human Rights



9 October 1989: Leipzig



The Fall of the Wall

  • May 1989: Hungarians breach iron curtain

  • Mass exodus begins; frustrated leavers seek refuge in Prague & Warsaw embassies of FRG

  • Leipzig peace marches from Nikolaikirche swell from hundreds, to thousands to hundreds of thousands; 9 October Berlin decides not to use violence

  • 18 October Honecker relieved for ‘health reasons’; successor Egon Krenz not trusted by most as genuine reformer

  • Planned staged opening of Wall mishandled & becomes stampede for border crossings; GDR border troops relinquish control




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